Hava Kohav Beller’s documentary In the Land of Pomegranates begins with an epigraph quote from Swiss writer and political activist Friedrich Dürrenmatt: “This inhuman world has to become more human. But how?” The writer of The Pledge and The Visit also claimed, “Without tolerance, our world turns into hell,” and argued that Swiss citizens were both prisoners and guards. One wonders what Dürrenmatt would have thought of Beller’s film, which explores the ongoing battle between Jews and Palestinians over who has the right to exist in Israel. The two-hour film starts out slowly, with interviews dating back to 2010 as random men and women share their views on the fierce debate; they are not artists, politicians, public figures, acknowledged experts, or professional thinkers. Ofra Eviatar talks about the dangers of being a Jew living by the wall at the Gaza border. An Arab man explains that he felt scared when he was a child, so “my fear meant I would get revenge when I grew up.” The people chosen feel a bit too arbitrary, too selective and manipulative. But then, suddenly, the film finds its focus as it zeroes in on a gathering of young Palestinians and Jews participating in a retreat in Germany called “Vacation from War,” where they live together and have intense group discussions about the controversy surrounding the State of Israel. “Here we are having a break from reality and here we will try to see if we can understand each other,” facilitator Shadi Hanoun says. But just when it seems like the next generation might be able to find some common ground, the conversation gets brutal as the Jews ask whether the Palestinians will ever accept Israel’s right to exist and the Palestinians demand that their land must be returned to them. Meanwhile, a young Palestinian mother has to cross the border to bring her son, who has a severe heart problem, to an Israeli hospital where Jewish doctors try to save the boy.
Beller (The Burning Wall, the Oscar-nominated The Restless Conscience: Resistance to Hitler within Germany 1933-1945), a former dancer and choreographer who was born in Germany, raised in Israel, and lives in New York City, occasionally cuts away to show horrific terrorist bombings as well as supremely gorgeous shots of Israel, stunning locales that serve as a dramatic counterpoint to the bitter feuds and spilled blood. (The lush cinematography is by Colin Rosin, Christoph Lerch, and Shalom Rufeisen, with superb editing by Jonathan Oppenheim.) One of the most striking elements of the film is how similar the young Palestinians and Jews look; aside from those wearing burkas or yarmulkes, it is not immediately apparent what side Ayana Lekach, Amal Shater, Rotem Dar, Shadi Abu Arrah, Rabea Arar, Guy Zuzut, Nira Ponso, and Aya Awad are on. And no matter what side you’re on, you’re likely to become enraged as the subject of the Holocaust takes center stage and the film reaches its sizzling conclusion. (The film also offers an alternate look from Menachem Daum and Oren Rudavsky’s 2016 The Ruins of Lifta: Where the Holocaust and Nakba Meet, in which an elderly Jewish woman and Palestinian man examine their differences.) “There needs to be an acceptance of the two national narratives,” Mohammad Judeh says, which seems to be impossible. It would be fascinating to hear what the participants think of President Trump’s decision to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which led to further violence. As Beller notes in the film, “The pomegranate is the fruit of the land, a symbol of rejuvenation and rebirth. It is also a euphemism for a hand grenade.” A lasting peace is not on this menu. In the Land of Pomegranates is having its theatrical world premiere on January 5 at Lincoln Plaza Cinema, which will be closing at the end of the month as its lease expires and the building and plaza undergo renovation. “At the completion of this work, we expect to reopen the space as a cinema that will maintain its cultural legacy far into the future,” owners Milstein Properties announced in a statement.